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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Chinese Chicken and New York Steak: Diminutive portions are not part of the Clouds ethos.

Silver Lining

Clouds casts away those post-holiday doldrums

By Selene Latigo

Holiday travel and a post­New Year's Eve cocktail party left our kitchen bare. A refrigerator drawer full of cheese remnants, six varieties of crackers, a full bar and a half carton of eggnog were the contents of our dinner-prep search, not counting the bolted Napa cabbage in our soggy winter garden. On most other nights, this would have been plenty to spark our gastronomically inclined imaginations toward a thematic drunken crackers-and-cheese picnic on the living room floor, but this being Jan. 2, the tail end of indulgent and excessive festivities and hangovers, we decided to find dinner elsewhere.

Jan. 2 also means budget dining for us, especially after this year's vacations and gift giving. We began leafing through our menus and coupons, searching for a fit. I'm betting that if you have lived here in town for at least a year or so, you have seen that cartoon cloud coupon for dinner for two for $34. The little cloud was our silver lining, delivering to us a good, balanced meal at a great value.

I was envisioning downtown to be empty and quiet on this Monday evening after the new year, but upon entering Clouds, we found a busy dining room and active bar, filling the modern and sophisticated space with warmth on this rainy night. We sat in back, along the row of cushy booths, and took in the unique lighting design and vibrant artwork while looking over the menu. One whole page featured a long list of specials, including several sushi selections, oysters Rockefeller and duck "two ways." The seafood- and meat-heavy menu leaves few vegetarian options, but the huge salads and a couple of sandwiches could easily be altered to suit any taste.

Once our server arrived, she explained the rules of our coupon. The $34 includes almost every entree and comes with a cup of the soup of the day and a bottle of the house wine. An extra $2.50 will provide for salad instead of soup and $5 extra pays for any of the more expensive beef entrees. In addition, if a whole bottle of wine seems a bit much, each person can select a glass of one of the "premium" wine choices. Our alcohol consumption level had already peaked this season, so we opted for a more moderate and quality beverage selection, a glass of the 2003 Bonny Doon Sangiovese for me (regularly $7) and the 2002 Aquinas Cabernet for Dave ($7.50).

We slowly sipped our wine and munched on the chewy seeded bread, served with our very own mini bottles of olive oil and balsamic. I appreciated this personalized dipping option, finding most pre-poured oil and vinegar ratios way too balsamic-heavy, killing my palate and my stomach before the meal.

I chose to take the $2.50 splurge and ordered the Clouds signature heart of romaine salad with Gorgonzola. The slab of lettuce arrived liberally dressed and crumbled with chunks of cheese and tomato wedges, practically a meal in itself. This is definitely a salad for both fork and knife. Dave got the soup, a delicate cream of tomato with fennel. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my stolen spoonfuls since I'm not much of a tomato soup fan. The hint of fennel gave the robust tomato flavor a floral quality, all blanketed by rich cream.

After quite a long wait, our entrees arrived. My grilled salmon with butternut ravioli ($19.95) came beautifully arranged on a large plate. The fish was cooked to my liking, dressed up in a creamy yet light sage sauce with zucchini and toasted pine nuts. Although doughy, the squash ravioli brought a nice sweet note to the dish.

Dave had decided on the pot roast ($15.95), which was served with mashed potatoes, horseradish cream, vegetables and stout gravy. The huge chunks of slowly cooked meat were heaped atop the other sides, doused in the gravy that was a touch on the salty side but countered by the fresh and slightly undercooked veggies.

I have learned to never expect small portions at Clouds, but I could not even scan the dessert menu. The coupons are a great deal and perfect for a date, whatever the company or occasion. On this mellow, winter night, we found hearty food and a relaxed atmosphere, but if we had been searching for a more contemporary and urban experience, Clouds would have been an ideal choice just the same.

Clouds Downtown
Address 110 Church St., Santa Cruz
Phone 831.429.2000
Hours Daily 11:30am-10pm
Price: $5-$25

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From the January 11-18, 2006 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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